How to Find and See Tracks

Noticed everything in one glance did you? … Or not?

There is that issue, and eventually, most likely sooner, a tracker comes across part of a trail where the animal seems to have levitated … and yes, they might have jumped, but the tracks you can see don’t mention that … so the missing tracks have to be there, right?  Yet no matter how long you look, even to the point where the mind begins generating false tracks, you find none.

There’s normal every day seeing and then there’s seeing. Have you ever been surprised when suddenly realizing that thing you thought you were looking at was something else entirely?  There’s a Sherlock Holmes / Mary Russell story where Mary glances over the side of their cruise ship and notices an object floating along beside the ship … Only to suddenly realize it was keeping pace … Which snapped her mind into focus and she realized it was a shark fin.   Or … look at a track … now begin all over again and look to find as many details as you can … Now get real close and do that again.

How many ways are there to see a track?

How many layers of relevant detail do you usually catch?

Sometimes giving up lets you see details you missed at first … “Giving up” as in resting the mind for a few moments and then taking a fresh perspective works pretty darn well but doesn’t solve all the problems with seeing.

This page is about ways to solve those other problems …

Now that the art of seeing has been mentioned … this book is interesting; “Tracking & The Art of Seeing”. Copyright 1999 by Paul Rezendes. ISBN: 0-06-273524-1


Concept Illustrated: Predicting where the next track will be found…
The idea: The focus of this illustration is reading the current track for clues about where to look for the next

Prediction is one of the highest learning skills and a good way to help your hard-won knowledge settle in.  The current track can point you towards the next track.  Learning how to read the current track for direction of the next step also helps your knowledge inter-connect.  One way to begin learning this skill is to find or create two sets of tracks and compare them.  Make one a series of straight-ahead slow and simple steps, and the second set similar but with an obvious change in direction a few steps in.  Now, looking at the second set, where did the change in direction begin?

In this clip a human right foot gives some idea of how the foot and sand interact when the foot serves as a push point to move the body gently to the left, and what signs of this push are left in the track.

This clip does not show all the indicators of a turn … One big and obvious indicator was intentionally left out (that’s a clue)!

Ways to find the next track …

(This is not a complete list)

The Tracking Stick: Ancient technology that works, and has multiple uses.  How can you use it to find the next track … and while standing?  (More about this on the “Trails” page)

Reading the current track: Can tell you how much energy was used, where the energy was going, how they used the foot, and which direction they moved.

Feel Tracking:  It is possible to sense something left when the track was made (maybe the energy left by the being that made it?) … (no joke).

The author heard about this in an introductory class taught by Tom Brown, Jr..  After dwelling in skepticism for a few years the author finally tried it and discovered Tom was right … It does work!

Since that awakening the author has used this method several times.  The way it worked the last time he used it: he felt a warm spot in the palm of his hand while it was held an inch or two above an easily visible track.  He was then able to find the next several tracks in the series by slowly moving his hand above the soil and paying attention to his body for the same sensation.  These next tracks were only faint flattened areas, slight scuffs, a tiny pebble nudged out of its bed, a damaged spot on a leaf, or faint depressions.  Verification came with an obvious and fresh track left by the same animal.

The trail was first noticed in a shaded area of hard-packed damp sandy/stony topsoil on a dirt road that had been rained on the evening before.  Worth noting because that made it pretty clear no other similar, or larger-sized animals had crossed the road in the area.

Feel tracking is especially useful in spots where a step causes minimal substrate movements, or when you don’t have a flashlight and the natural lighting isn’t bringing out details.  This shaded hard-packed area was on soil where rain acts to settle it, leaving it rigid and packed, with the fine dust washed back down in among the stones and sand grains.

The author has heard of this skill being pushed much further …

How to … the basic version:

Start with the track last obvious track.  Hold your hand about an inch or two above that track (palm down works for the author) and avoid touching the ground.   This works best if you don’t look for tracks as you move your hand, and instead just look a bit to the side and pay attention to your body.  Next, slowly move your hand back and forth or sideways above the track, far enough that your hand clears the track and is above undisturbed ground.

When your hand is near or above the track, you may notice a sensation; warmth on the palm, or back of the hand, or a tingle in the shoulder muscle, or something else unique to you.  Every mind/body combination is different … so experiment and persist… learning to tune into this sensation may take some time.

After you’ve learned the sensation you can begin searching for the next track by moving your hand slowly in the direction of the animal’s travel, or back down the trail while paying attention to the same location on your body where you first noticed the sensation.  Sometimes a series of short arcs across the area works best.  When you get that sensation again examine the area under your palm closely, looking for the track, it may be faint.

To follow a trail of hard to see tracks you may need to repeat this process, marking the location of each track (without disturbing the trail), until you begin to find one obvious tracks again.

Another experiment: What are the limits for this sense?  An inch…A yard…A mile … Only kneeling … Standing?  What happens if, after you’ve sensed one of these tracks, you aim your palm up the trail?  What else happens?  Images in your mind, an intuition about who the animal is.

A digression to share a memory sparked by writing that last paragraph: one summer day, walking along a favorite dirt road, and working on inner stillness, the author suddenly found himself thinking about wolves.  No sparking object or thought, just one moment stillness … the next it was almost like the author was up on the ridge observing himself walking down the road.  Who knows what that really was?  As far as field guides go, there haven’t been wolves up here this century, or the last.  Well yes, but there was that one year in the early 21st century when this set of huge canine tracks crossed the area … But that wolf made the news when it was killed by a car a mile two away down on the highway.  So if your mind ever suddenly switches gears in a similar way you might pause to ask yourself what is going on.


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Concept Illustrated: Dust Compressions (Dull on Shiny by Canine Toe Pad)
The idea: Tracks are created every time there is an interaction between a foot and a surface, and a bit beyond that.  This illustration is meant to demonstrate a track being left on a surface covered by a thin layer of dust,  particles so small that you only see them when your eye is at the correct angle to catch the light reflecting off the surface, and a way to see that track.


Concept Illustrated: Increasing the Visibility of Tracks by Adjusting Light and Shadow

The Idea:   This illustration is a hint, about a technique to reveal faint tracks and more details.

In the dark, or in heavy shade, and even during the day when clouds or angle of the sun reduce the amount of shadow, tracks and details may be much less visible, or worse, because shadow is what makes tracks visible … by bringing out the details.

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Concept Illustrated: Track on ‘Bare’ Rock (Red Fox Front Foot)

The idea: Some tracks can be found even on “bare” rock…


Concept Illustrated: Using Stone Rolls to Find Tracks

Nudging ... Square-ish

The idea:  Noticing stones that have been disturbed in, or knocked clear out of their soil beds is another way to find tracks when they aren’t obvious,  This can be used to speed up the tracking process a bit.

(Oh, the photo?  Yeah, ok, it might be a slight exaggeration … That shadow is the author and camera.)

Soil conditions, and the way those affect soil response to a foot, are constantly changing.  In some soil conditions tracks are easy to find, in others not so much.

For example:  In this area rain can wash away faint tracks and make deep tracks fade and slump.  When the rain ends this soil drains quickly, but can stay damp and packed for quite a while, even a day or more.  This soil can become so packed and settled that the hoof of an adult deer walking after the rain sometimes leaves only the faintest of tracks.

When soil conditions hold only faint tracks …  Dullings, scuffs, slight depressions, etc. … It can take much longer to read or follow even a section of a trail.

Sometimes it is useful to minimize the time it takes to find the tracks you need to see.  How?  There are several strategies.  Noticing stone rolls is especially easy when animals have crossed open ground after a soaking rain has refreshed the surface  (where there is no layer of leaves or pine needles).

What happens to the soil when it rains?  Ever watch?  That’s a good place to start.  In this area the rain carries fine soil into and seals the gaps where embedded stones and soil surface meet, and rounds the edges of holes already in the soil … And the surface will gradually weather from this state unless something has disturbed it.

The least sign left when someone does disturb this surface can be faint.  As little as a tiny open crack at what was the rain-sealed boundary of soil and stone, a faint dulling or a slight depression.

 More obvious sign can include stones knocked completely out of their beds, leaving a patchy trail of disturbed stones that can be easily seen with a little practice.

Like most other track features there are variations: large stone rolls and tiny … Old stone rolls and fresh … Some slightly rocked in their beds, and others pushed deeper … And stones so large they don’t seem to notice they were stepped on, fortunately there is dust everywhere.


Concept Illustrated: Lifts and Drops as Track Features and Indicators of Direction of Foot Movement

A “Lift”

The idea:  Illustrate the process, and usefulness of “Lifts” … (when things stick to the foot and are lifted from their original position).  They are useful and may give clues about direction of foot travel.

Soil conditions are constantly varying. Lifts can happen in almost any soil when conditions favor.  In the photo above it is 7:40 a.m. on April 28 at about 9,000 feet.  The previous evening the sand had been damp and then froze overnight.  The sun rose at about 6 a.m. and had been shining on this spot just long enough to melt most of a shallow layer of overnight snow, and thaw a thin surface layer of sand.  Because of the known facts it’s an interesting example for reading the age of a track.  (When was the last precipitation in your area?)

Stones, lumps of mud, pine needles, etc., can sometimes be carried up and away by the foot.  Once attached to the foot this material can distort the next track.

Lifts can range from a single sand grain up to a chunk as large as everything else stuck on the bottom and sides of the foot, and can carry useful information from the track even back home … Sherlock Holmes could deduce something about where a shoe had been from the kind of mud caked on.

A “Lift” and a “Drop”

And … “Drops” (when these things stuck to the foot eventually fall, are knocked off, or stick to some other object) … Have uses also, for example, they sometimes indicate the foot’s direction of travel.

When the author was a child he learned to avoid certain places, clay-rich ground for example, because walking became progressively difficult as mud built-up on his shoes (and slippery?  Ever try greasy clay mud skating?).  Once back on dryer ground an obvious trail of mud was left as chunks fell off with every step.

The next track … There most always is one, though seeing it does sometimes present a serious challenge.   Reading the clues in the last track found … those about where that foot went, or has been … is a valuable tool for finding the hard to see track.  So might there be more than one kind of useful information in the trail of soil particles and surface debris lifted away and dropped from the foot?

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Concept Illustrated: The Tracking Stick

The Idea: One way to find a hard to see track.

This method can also speed up how long it takes to follow a trail.

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Concept Illustrated: How Small Can You Go and Still Find Tracks?
The idea:  Raise a question; What are the limitations?

Ants leave tracks also!  If you look where the white arrow is pointing, there is a sand grain coated with mud that the right rear leg is just pressing into. Now look at the lower photo.















In this next photo, the ants’ right rear leg left an indentation in the mud.  If you look a little more closely, you can see the imprint left by the spur on that joint, it branches off and angles back from the darker line imprinted by the leg. (You can see it a little more clearly in the insert)











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The Other Concepts:

Page: The Concepts of Tracking… The Essentials
The Translucent Foot

Page: Aging Tracks… How long ago?
Color Change

Page: Foot and Body Movements … How body movement creates and is reflected in the tracks, and how to read it from them.
Canine Claw Tip Leaves Track in Fine Sand

Page: How To Read Tracks … (and trails) – The problem isn’t lack of information
Simple Tire Track and Direction of Travel
True Track (Canine Toe Pad)

Page: The Invisible Skills … Think you’ve gone as far as you can?
Problem Solving by Baby Steps
The Only Way to Get Anywhere Else…

Page: Species … Tracks of distinct species and track features unique to them
Deer Foot – One Walking Step
Red Fox Front and Rear Feet – Side Trot

Page: Track Features … The story is revealed by the details
Pressure Against the Track Wall (Canine Toe Pad)
The Wave, Simple?
The Ridge Between Canine Front Toes
The Layer of Sand in Contact With The Foot

Page: Trails and Sign … Reading all the layers
The Human Trail